INTER-RELIGIOUS CONFLICT IN FOUR DISTRICTS OF SRI LANKA

International Centre for Ethnic Studies & Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education 2018

2.9. Economics and Business Rivalry Economics is a cross-cutting factor affecting ethnoreligious relations in all four districts but was more
pronounced in Ampara and Matara. In Ampara, poverty was a significant factor which was said to
impact relations between Tamils and Muslims. Two similar, yet contradictory, narratives on poverty
emerged from the interviews with both Tamils and Muslims. The Tamil respondents stated that Tamils
in the Ampara district are relatively poorer than the Muslims whereby many of them work as domestics
in Muslim households and businesses. They claimed that this results in sexual abuse of Tamil women
and the corruption of Hindu youth by Muslims through their use of foul and suggestive language.
They further stated that the war has crippled the Tamils both economically and politically, whereby
the Muslims are more powerful in the District. Conversely, the Muslim respondents stated that Tamils
have become richer after the LTTE because the diaspora channels funds to them which they use to
create problems for the Muslims. The views expressed by the Tamils seem to be at the level of
community perception, while the views of the Muslims is a general observation in relation to the Tamil
community in the North and East. These perceptions have not manifested into any large conflicts
between the communities, though small altercations over land have taken place.
Muslim-Sinhalese relations, however, are greatly impacted by economic considerations in the Matara
district. The Muslim women respondents stated that there are no ethno-religious problems in Matara
town. However, the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments is primarily related to business rivalry. These
rivalries are based on jealousy whereby Buddhists do not patronize Muslim stores such as Fashion
Bug. They stated that Muslims have faced losses as a result and, in response, they too do not patronize
Sinhalese shops. Furthermore, in relation to violence against Muslim businesses, the women noted
that no action was taken when a Muslim shop was burnt during the fasting period. They also expressed
the opinion that this was a planned act to disrupt the fasting period.
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Such antagonism against the Muslim community could be attributed to fear among the Sinhala
community of Muslims’ territorial expansion within ‘the market’. In Weligama, where there is a large
concentration of Muslims, the Buddhist respondents stated that Muslims are strategically chasing the
Sinhalese out of the public market places and expanding their meat stalls. They were of the belief that
the urban council administration is also biased in favour of Muslims and discriminates against
Sinhalese as the Mayor is Muslim. They also expressed concern about the fact that there are only a
few Sinhalese shops left in the town and that there is an unseen power behind such attempts “to
capture this country”. They predicted that in two years, there would not be any Sinhalese shops in the
town and that the Sinhalese are increasingly becoming weak in Weligama as it is almost under the
control of the Muslims. According to the respondents, the Muslim community’s strategy is “to capture
this land” (Weligama/Sri Lanka) in three ways: land, population and economy. However, they were
also self-critical stating that the Sinhalese are not doing well because of their own laziness and that this
should not be a reason to attack Muslim businesses (Members of inter-religious forum, Buddhist men
and women, June 17, 2017).
The above fear of the alleged strategy to capture land, population and economy is reflected in Deniyaya
as well where Muslim ‘jamaat’ (preaching) activities, the legal expansion of a Mosque’s outbuildings
and commencement of businesses by Muslims are obstructed not only by Buddhist individuals and
monks, but also by the Buddhist community at large. An example is the forceful shutting down of a
Muslim business by the BBS and its supporters in the village and the installment of a Buddhist
businessman instead in 2018. More subtle methods of intimidation of Muslim individuals, in the form
of personal communication through letters, are also adopted.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
31

  1. Inter-religious Conflict: A District-based Analysis
    3.1. Mannar
    The discussion of inter-religious relations in Mannar in the previous section shows that inter-religious
    conflict is based on relations and contestations of power, attitudes of majoritarianism among the
    Catholics, a sense of entitlement among the Muslims, and responses of minority communities such as
    the Hindus and Christians in asserting (spatially and symbolically) their own religious identities.
    Furthermore, (the perception of) unequal distribution of and access, based on ethno-religious identity,
    to resources, development schemes, and justice are also factors that pit religious communities against
    each other. While these inequalities have unique manifestations in the Mannar district as a space with
    its own identity, the case of Buddhist temples, speaks to the macro narrative of the deliberate
    Buddhicization of ethno-religiously ‘other’ (Catholic and Hindu) spaces as part of the post-war
    nationalist agenda. However, such Buddhicization could also be alternatively viewed as a natural
    consequence of the war whereby the Buddhist soldiers stationed in the area fulfil a human need for a
    religious space near their camps by erecting shrines for their personal worship.
    In addition to these spatial and relational factors, an important fact to note is the role of political actors
    and religious leaders in aggravating inter-religious tensions particularly between the Tamil and Muslim
    communities as well as the Tamil and Buddhist communities. All of the respondents stated that there
    is no animosity felt among ordinary citizens against their religious counterparts and that coexistence
    is the norm and not the exception. Catholic and Muslim politicians were identified as the chief agitators
    of conflict among religious communities for their own political gain. Furthermore, Catholic, Hindu,
    and Muslim religious leaders were also cited as having great influence over their religious communities
    whereby they can not only influence how people vote, but also provoke them to violate laws and
    commit acts of vandalism. The zealousness of young priests and their sermons was also mentioned as
    a reason for conflicts arising in localities. One respondent also blamed the Indian government (‘Modi’s
    government’ in his words) for its influence in Jaffna and accused India for providing the statues of
    Lord Ganesh which are being installed in the Mannar district as a strategy to promote Tamil Hindu
    nationalism in the North.
    3.2. Jaffna
    In Jaffna, ethnic difference rather than religious difference was the chief factor influencing ethnoreligious relations with the primary conflict stemming from the war and post-war militarization of the
    North. The use of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism symbolically in the form of hoisting the Buddhist flag,
    resettlement of military families in the North and the construction of Buddhist temples to encroach
    on Tamil spaces antagonize the majority Tamil community which is politically less powerful. TamilMuslim relations are also defined by land issues arising from the expulsion of the Muslim community
    from the North in the 90s and the alleged interference of Muslim politicians outside of the North in
    the affairs of the NPC. The purely religious tensions derive from the socio-cultural aspect of caste
    which causes inequalities among Hindus and sometimes Catholics in the practice of and engagement
    in religious activities which leads to confrontation, animosity, and bitterness at individual level. The
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    conversion of Hindus by evangelical churches was also considered problematic, but tolerated by the
    Hindu community.
    Thus, ethno-religious relations in Jaffna are shaped by political, relational, and deeply entrenched
    cultural norms, both of which operate to establish and sustain dominance and hierarchical
    relationships.
    3.3. Ampara
    In Ampara, the Muslim respondents were of the opinion that politicians, lack of law enforcement, and
    international conspiracies were the reasons for inter-religious conflict in the district. It was believed
    that the BBS, which was said to have links with Norway and Israel, works on an international agenda
    which is against the Muslims. Furthermore, when Muslims start to talk about their rights in relation
    to inter-religious problems, the BBS tries to deflect attention to their claims by creating violence.
    The respondents also stated that there are many racist local agencies inside and outside the government
    that are working against the Muslims. The Department of Archaeology and the Forest Department
    were particularly accused of working against Muslims and grabbing Muslim lands.
    Ethno-political parties also cause religious tensions; though they are a voice for different religious and
    ethnic groups, the respondents expressed suspicion over the (nature of) relationships among those
    political parties. The respondents believed that inciting inter-religious tension could also be a plot of
    these different political parties in order to garner a following. Individual politicians, particularly in
    relation to the Manikkamadu Buddha Statue, were attributed to being responsible for creating issues
    against Muslims.
    False rumours and news about Jihad groups among Muslims were also cited as reasons for interreligious conflict. Some of the Buddhist respondents’ opinions were also shaped by the news and the
    media. They stated that the obstacles to coexistence include laws not being implemented, mistrust,
    and land issues. They also echoed the Muslim community’s sentiments stating that politicians in the
    area do not talk about coexistence and refer to it only when a government or civil appointment needs
    to be made.
    The Buddhist respondents also mentioned that while the general public does not have a preference
    for any particular ethno/religious group, there is a prevailing perception that Tamils are better than
    Muslims. However, the respondents did not subscribe to this belief. They also stated that the general
    public believes that Muslims are “crooks” but argued that this does not correlate to their success in
    business and that Muslims being better at business is a false belief (Members of village development
    forum, Buddhist men and women, May 25, 2017).
    The above reveal that at the heart of inter-religious relations and conflict in the Ampara district lies
    the insecurities of the Sinhala Buddhist State due to the Muslims’ control over economic and
    administrative activities in the region which manifest in attempts to displace Muslims’ power by
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    33
    appropriating their lands. The Tamils, on the other hand, harbour prejudices against Muslims as
    economically better off, culturally different, and view them as corrupting Tamil cultural values. A
    shared source of contestation among all three major ethnic groups in the district is land as it is viewed
    as a means of amassing power and dominance.
    3.4. Matara
    Underlying the tensions and the reasons for inter-religious conflict in the Matara district is fear of the
    majority Sinhala Buddhist community of losing their ethno-religious identity which is based on
    majoritarianism. This fear is exploited by politicians and extremist elements to incite the ordinary
    citizen to react either through violence or other acts of racism.
    The main reason cited for the general public’s susceptibility to racist influence was the Sinhalese
    community’s lack of knowledge about other cultures. The Muslim respondents also agreed that this
    ignorance applies to their community as well. The Muslim women said that since communities are
    mixed in Matara Town, Muslims in Town interact with other cultures whereby they know about other
    communities. However, there are Muslims in mono-ethnic villages in Weligama and Dikwella who are
    isolated from other communities and sometimes hurt the feelings of Sinhalese by their ignorant actions
    (Members of women’s group, Muslim women, June 18, 2017).
    Language is also a cause for conflict in these mono-ethnic villages. The respondents stated that
    Muslims in such villages do not know how to speak Sinhala properly and there is miscommunication
    and misunderstanding between ordinary people. Therefore, the main challenges to inter-religious
    coexistence are the language problem, lack of knowledge about other religions and their practices, and
    lack of interaction among Buddhists and Muslims, particularly in remote/rural areas.
    One example of misunderstanding and wrong perceptions is the belief that Muslims are supporters of
    ISIS. This is also used as a justification for attacking Muslims. The women respondents asserted that
    Muslims are against ISIS. Lack of knowledge about the Muslim community was also discussed in
    relation to the contributions that Muslims make to the local community which go unacknowledged
    on social and mainstream media. For example, they stated that ethno-religious problems decreased
    after the severe floods in 2016 and 2017 because many Muslims contributed a lot to flood relief. The
    Buddhist respondents from Matara town corroborated this view stating that Muslims are very humane
    as they help the poor and the neglected and that they had been very helpful during floods (FGD,
    Buddhist men and women, June 17, 2017).
    In Weligama, the Muslim respondents expressed a different aspect of ignorance stating that people
    do not know history and that is why there is conflict. They stated that those who do, know that
    Weligama is a Muslim village and before that it was a Tamil village. It is the new people who don’t
    know this old information who are easily brainwashed by extremist groups into believing that the
    village is of Sinhalese origin (Members of religious institution, Muslim men and women, June 18,
    2017). The Muslim respondents in Weligama were also self-critical stating that sometimes, it is their
    own community that provokes individual Sinhalese to join extremist groups like the BBS. They stated
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    that a few Muslim farmers steal cows from neighbouring Sinhalese farmers. Muslim youth in the area
    also loiter and play cricket on the street obstructing traffic. In retaliation, Sinhalese grab the thoppis
    (caps) off Muslim youths’ heads when they are on their way to prayers. However, some of the
    respondents disagreed stating that the grabbing of thoppis is a premeditated act by the temple in the
    area. They also expressed concern about some Muslim youth groups that look to create problems.
    The Buddhist respondents in Weligama explained their side of the story stating that Muslims always
    organize cricket matches on Poya (full moon) days. Their use of loudspeakers throughout the day
    disturbs the tranquil environment Buddhists need to engage in religious activities. They stated that
    they feel so helpless in such situations that “Buddhists in this Buddhist country are losing their rights
    to follow their religion” (Participants of FGD, Buddhist men and women, June 17, 2017).
    On the other hand, the Sinhalese respondents also acknowledged and showed awareness of the fact
    that the majoritarian attitude among the Sinhalese aggravates inter-ethnic issues. They stated that the
    Sinhalese do not want their dominance challenged by other communities. They also stated that
    Weligama is a site of conflicts and clashes that took place several times in the past. The origin of most
    of these conflicts was personal disputes which flared into inter-religious/ethnic conflicts due to this
    majoritarian attitude among the Sinhalese.
    Such Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism permeates governance structures as well, whereby the police
    and those responsible for maintaining law and order such as the GN (Grama Niladhari) fail to
    intervene in times of inter-religious conflict when the perpetrator/s is/are Buddhists. Thus, Muslim,
    Hindu, and Christian minorities expressed their helplessness in seeking redress for acts of intimidation,
    discrimination, and violence against them. This culture of impunity is further encouraged by politicians
    who stir inter-religious tensions by spreading hatred against Muslims. The Muslim respondents stated
    that this issue goes unresolved because Muslim ministers are unable to do anything about it as they
    have to protect their seats in Parliament (FGD, Muslim men and women, June 18, 2017). The
    Buddhist respondents in Weligama also echoed the view that politicians instigate inter-religious
    conflict to further their own agendas. Access to justice for victims of inter-religious violence is thus
    barred by political influence and Sinhalese majoritarianism within the law enforcement structures.
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    35
  2. Conflict Resolution Strategies in Addressing Inter-religious Conflict and the Role of
    Inter-Religious Committees
    That inter and intra religious conflict and contestations would be addressed by law enforcement
    authorities such as the police is a logical assumption. However, in heterogeneous communities where
    ethno-religious majoritarianism shapes the practices of state institutions, there is discrimination and a
    lack of trust in the impartiality of state law enforcement mechanisms. This lack of faith results in
    certain communities such as the Muslims in Mannar and Ampara placing faith in the impartiality of
    the legal system seeking legal recourse for conflict with the Catholic majority in Mannar and Buddhist
    state representatives in Ampara. Similarly, in Deniyaya, Muslims and Hindus experience discrimination
    by the police who side with Buddhist extremist elements.
    Thus, mediation or mitigation of inter-religious conflict is most often achieved by the intervention of
    religious leaders in their individual capacities at local/private level. All four districts also had interreligious fora or committees (formal or informal) in operation and which were founded with the
    intention of maintaining good relations between members of different religions. A common narrative
    from representatives of inter-religious fora in Mannar and Matara was the lack of capacity to intervene
    and resolve inter-religious conflict, particularly in taking immediate action at the site of violent
    confrontations. Respondents in Ampara and Matara also called for politicians to solve inter-religious
    conflict as they stem from larger factors such as nationalism and regional nationalisms which are
    shaped by political motivations.
    4.1. Mannar
    An informal body that concerns itself with conflict mitigation is the Mannar Inter-religious Forum
    which comprises both lay and religious leaders who come together to address inter-religious problems
    in the district. This council was instituted 20 years ago through the initiative of the Church and a
    moulavi. The group was not active during the war, but at present, with the support of two NGOs, has
    resumed its activities. The president and secretaries of the Forum comprise clergy representing all four
    religions and the other office bearers are lay male and female leaders recommended by the clergy. The
    council meets once a month and hears complaints regarding the illegal/competitive placement of
    statues, land disputes, child abuse and gender-based violence. One way in which they attempt to
    promote inter-religious coexistence is by inviting a prominent religious leader as chief guest for an
    event conducted by a community of a different religion. They have also managed to solve an issue
    related to an easement claimed by the church from a Hindu temple amicably. However, a
    representative of the Forum stated that while they do function as a group, they do not have the social
    recognition and importance required to intervene on the spot in cases of inter-religious violence. The
    extent to which they intervene is in informing the relevant government officials of the
    problem/dispute and withdrawing from that point onwards.
    A challenge faced, as one older respondent explained, is that there were mediation boards and trustee
    boards in the past and everyone respected the decisions of the board. Today, however, because of the
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    rift in the relationship between Tamils and Muslims, the decisions of inter-religious fora or councils
    are not respected.
    According to another respondent, at village level, individual parish priests or the kuru overseeing a
    Hindu temple should ideally solve local disputes. However, the parish councils and members of the
    kovil administration, who comprise lay persons, displace the priests and exert more influence and
    authority in the resolution of disputes and decision making. This could also be due to the fact that the
    priest/kuru does not have the time amidst other duties to address local issues or does not have the
    personality to command authority over prominent members of a parish/administrative society.
    Conflict resolution strategies adopted were also district-specific. All of the Non-RC respondents in
    Mannar expressed a lack of faith in law enforcement and government officers due to the power the
    Catholic Church has in influencing decisions. For example, a Non-RC respondent stated that in an
    instance where Catholics had thrown stones at their place of worship, the police had arrested only the
    Non-RC individuals and not the Catholics who had instigated the violence (Pastor, Christian male,
    7thMarch, 2017). Thus, religious minorities in Mannar are more confident in seeking legal recourse to
    solve issues, particularly in the case of land disputes. The Non-RC individuals also stated that they
    recruit Muslim lawyers to represent them in court as they feel that Catholic lawyers would be biased
    in favour of the Church. The land disputes mentioned above (including those between Catholics and
    Muslims) had been settled through legal action though some of the judgments were not in favour of
    the Christian/Muslim plaintiffs.
    4.2. Jaffna
    The respondents interviewed were not members of any inter-religious groups or councils expect for
    one male who was part of a group that engaged in cultural activities and theatre to unite different
    ethno-religious communities. This group was inspired by an inter-religious dialogue organized by
    NGOs working on peacebuilding and conducts educational activities around religious festivals to
    create awareness about the practices of different religious groups. Another female respondent was
    also a member of an inter-religious forum. Both stated that there were no overt conflicts between
    different religious groups, hence implying the lack of urgency for the formation of inter-religious fora.
    This lack of urgency could also be due to the fact that civil society and individuals in Jaffna are still
    preoccupied with post-war recovery and transitional justice whereby the need for truth, justice, and
    reparations were foremost in the minds of the participants. Inter-religious relations, particularly
    between Hindus and Buddhists and Tamils and Muslims were, thus, viewed through the lens of ethnic
    supremacy rather than religion.

4.3. Ampara
In Ampara, the respondents considered conflict mitigation as the responsibility of politicians. They
stated that Muslim politicians need to and should engage in dialogue with the government when there
is an issue. Merely making a public statement will not solve the problem. Some respondents stated
that Muslims had lost their trust in Muslim politicians’ ability to solve problems faced by their
community. “The Muslim business community can and must pressurize Muslim politicians to act on
their behalf. There is also a need for Muslims to empower civil society and encourage civil society to
come forward to resolve civil issues” (Participants of FGD, Muslim men, May 23, 2017).
The Buddhist respondents in Ampara stated that in order to resolve inter-religious conflict, people
should be allowed to build places of worship according to their right. Everyone should live in
harmony, learn each other’s languages, and interact with each other. They also stated that the solution
to the Muslim issue is to send them (Muslims) to Muslim countries (Members of village development
forum, Buddhist male and female, May 25, 2017).
Given the extent of mistrust among Buddhists and Muslims in Ampara, conflicts (particularly those
related to appropriation of land) are addressed through legal measures, which is considered an
impartial channel.
4.4. Matara
The Muslim women in Matara town were members of a Muslim organization that celebrates a Peace
Day event annually. Their activities involve speaking to the Sinhalese about ISIS and informing them
that they (ISIS) are not Muslim. They contribute articles to a Sinhala magazine and respond to people’s
curiosity about the Muslims’ cultural and religious practices.
The Muslim men and women in Weligama, however, were critical of inter-religious groups, stating
that inter-religious groups form only when there is a problem. “People from outside come and form
groups which break up. They call us for meetings and give us lunch and money, so we go” (Members
of religious institution, Muslim men and women June 18, 2017). They highlighted the importance of
building links between different religious leaders.
The Inter-religious Committee in Deniyaya seemed more active in terms of attempting to address
inter-religious conflict. A strategy used by the group is to enable a space for both parties to meet and
listen to each other’s claims with close collaboration with the police, GN (Grama Niladhari) and GA
(Government Agent). However, when the problem is between Buddhists and a member of another
religion, the committee encounters problems in solving issues as their solutions are not taken up by
the authorities. Thus, the group felt that a solution for the problem of BuddhistMuslim/Christian/Hindu tensions could only be resolved at a political level as it is political will that
can sway extremist elements. They further commented on the importance of training in conflict
mitigation, but also the fact that the training is ineffective as the group does not possess the clout to
intervene directly in matters of inter-religious conflict. This is due to the fact that law enforcement
38
officials and decision-making bodies in the area do not share or accept the values of coexistence that
the committee promotes. The committee members further stated that they did not have opportunities
to refresh and update their knowledge and skills in conflict mitigation.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
39

  1. Women and Inter-religious Conflict: Participation and Roles
    The importance of equal participation and the role of women in conflict mitigation is one that is not
    only overlooked in patriarchal societies at large, but also trivialized and reinforced by religious norms,
    beliefs, and institutions. UNSCR 1325 emphasizes the importance of women’s equal roles in terms of
    prevention of conflict, participation and inclusion in decision-making processes, protection and
    respect of human rights, and relief and recovery. While these roles and entitlements are defined in
    relation to armed conflict, it can nevertheless be applied to women’s engagement in inter-religious
    conflict and conflict resolution. Thus, this section examines the status of women’s role in inciting
    conflicts, their participation in conflict mitigation, the barriers women face to participate effectively in
    religious/inter-religious groups or associations, their concerns regarding protection, and the ways in
    which women might contribute actively towards promoting coexistence.
    It is important to note that at the level of perceptions about religious others there were no significant
    differences between the attitudes expressed by men and women. However, the degree and depth of
    women’s understanding of inter-religious conflict and their participation in conflict mitigation varied
    both within and across the four districts. Thus, Muslim women in Ampara were found to be most
    active in inter-religious committees than their counterparts in Mannar and Ampara whose activities
    were constrained by religious norms of the community. Similarly, Hindu women (despite their activism
    and entrepreneurship in the social and economic sphere) were also the least involved in inter-religious
    committees and kovil administrative groups due to the patriarchal underpinning of Hindu beliefs and
    practices. Buddhist and Catholic women were seen to be most active in inter-religious committees,
    though it was difficult to discern the extent to which their input is taken up by the groups they belong
    to. Location is also a significant determinant of women’s agency Therefore, the subsequent analysis
    focuses separately on women’s participation, agency, and vulnerability in each of the districts.
    5.1 Mannar
    A general observation regarding women respondents in Mannar (irrespective of religious affiliation)
    is that while they are aware of the inter-religious conflicts in their villages and in the district. Except
    for the Christian women, they did not seem to have much influence in conflict mitigation initiatives,
    religious groups, or inter-religious group activities. The Muslim and Hindu women interviewed also
    did not see it as their role to directly engage in addressing inter-religious problems in their
    communities, though the Muslim women were very vocal in their description of the issues and their
    desired solutions.
    The Muslim women respondents did not consider themselves as having a role in matters related to
    religion at community or institutional levels. When asked why they could not have played a role in
    seeking a solution to inter-religious disputes, they said that they did not see themselves as being able
    to initiate finding a solution. They did not have membership in any inter-religious forum, though they
    were part of a WRDS.
    40
    The Hindu women’s groups were primarily concerned about the development of their villages, paving
    of roads, livelihoods, and job opportunities for their children. Their perception was that Catholics
    have better chances of obtaining employment in the Government service since they had contacts in
    the ministries and that Hindus are marginalized.
    The Catholic and Non-RC women were more active in church administrative groups and shared
    strong opinions on inter-religious conflict. The fact that church administrative groups have great
    influence over the parish priests (as mentioned earlier in the report) shows that Catholic women have
    some influence in decision-making and contributing to or mitigating conflict as these groups consist
    mostly of women. The present secretary of the Mannar Inter-religious Federation is a Catholic woman
    and the federation includes female members as well. However, these women are ‘influential’ members
    of society as they are engineers, doctors, or teachers. The level of participation of these women in
    inter-religious fora is also uncertain. One male representative of the inter-religious federation stated
    that the female members of the federation did not take leading roles in the activities of the federation.
    However, they did engage in their feminist advocacy separately (Priest, Catholic male, April 14, 2018).
    5.2 Jaffna
    In Jaffna, Hindu women are not included in kovil administrative committees and in decision making.
    They can voice their opinions in public gatherings, but not at kovil administrative meetings. Women
    get involved in smaller kovil administrative activities such as clearing the temple compound. On the
    other hand, Catholic and Christian women participate actively in church administration. Thus, of the
    women interviewed, it was the Hindu women who were adversely affected by their religion. None of
    the Hindu women interviewed were aware of, or were members of, inter-religious fora, though they
    were knowledgeable about inter-religious tensions in the district. They were also very active in their
    WRDSs and worked towards the development of their villages.
    The Hindu women in Jaffna, however, expressed how they are particularly discriminated against by
    their religion. Women’s agency and mobility are curbed by religious beliefs and customs when they
    are either widowed or childless. Furthermore, the Hindu belief in astrology results in some women
    being deemed born under inauspicious planetary conditions whereby they need to find marriage
    partners who share the same astrological conditions. This results in families marrying such daughters
    off without consideration of the character of the men. Such women live under unhappy conditions
    and some are abandoned by their husbands and are cheated of their dowry. Despite these factors, one
    respondent stated that women have gained power and have been thrust into roles of leadership after
    the war, due to the death, injury, or disappearance of many men during the war (President of WRDS,
    Hindu woman, March 8, 2013). Therefore, there is a need to engage women and empower them to
    not only take up roles of leadership, but also to address issues such as caste, and traditional
    discriminatory practices reinforced by religion that restrict them from full participation in society.
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    41
    5.3 Ampara
    The Hindu women stated that their participation in kovil administration meetings is high in terms of
    voicing their opinions, but there is little respect for their opinions. Women don’t engage in decisionmaking and they are not allowed to handle finances. It is only in the general meetings that women’s
    opinions are considered. Women’s role in the temple is to collect taxes, clean the surrounding areas,
    and serve food at almsgivings. The Hindu women also expressed their lack of understanding of the
    conflict between the Buddhists and Muslims in Ampara over the claiming of sacred land. They
    suspected the involvement of the military in a plot to make the country a Buddhist country. The
    women also stated that it is men who instigate inter-religious conflict.
    Muslim women in the Ampara district interact with other communities only when seeking services at
    government offices. Young Muslim women are also not allowed to interact with others as there is a
    fear, particularly among undergraduates in the Oluvil University, regarding conversion. There are a
    few incidents of Muslim girls eloping with Sinhalese boys. Hence, the women’s reluctance to interact
    with others. It can be said that like in Mannar, a majority of Muslim women are not involved in
    activities promoting inter-religious coexistence at least in the public sphere.
    5.4 Matara
    The Muslim women interviewed in Matara town, on the other hand, seemed to be very active in
    religious groups and were engaged in peacebuilding activities such as organizing an annual Peace Day
    and writing articles to Sinhala newspapers in an effort to clarify the misconceptions held against the
    community. A majority of the women were also professionals and were more economically active in
    the public sphere than the women interviewed in Weligama, Mannar, and Ampara. Their opinion was
    that women are better at peacebuilding because they have the patience to explain and clarify people’s
    doubts.
    The Buddhist women from Matara said that women have gradually become liberal in the area. They
    expressed the need to be empowered more. They said that they were familiar with different
    interventions for coexistence – Divisional Secretariat office-level work and NPC (National Peace
    Council)-led dialogues – and expressed disappointment about the government as it is not taking action
    against extremism. They were of the opinion that change should come at attitudinal level to resolve
    these conflicts. They stated that their experience of coexisting with other communities has been
    beautiful and that the value and advantage of coexistence should be promoted. This was echoed by
    the Muslim women too when reminiscing on the past (which they referred to as pre-BBS times). A
    Buddhist male member of an inter-religious committee, however, was of the opinion that women are
    not active in inter-religious committees and do not attend meetings as they feel they do not benefit
    from participation.
    Young Hindu and Christian women from Deniyaya, who were members of an inter-religious
    committee stated that they were able to participate equally with men in decision-making processes.
    However, respect for age and seniority resulted in the opinions of the male members being taken up
    42
    more often. They expressed the concern that youth required a lot of training on leadership and conflict
    mitigation in their mother tongue. As most training programmes are conducted in Sinhala, Tamil
    speakers are disadvantaged. Another barrier faced by these young women was discrimination on the
    basis of ethnicity by government officials, due to which these women were hesitant to approach
    authorities with solutions to problems. They also stated that women were a reason for inter-religious
    conflict as it is they who are most susceptible to conversion by means of financial assistance.
    Awareness-raising among women, was thus highlighted as an important intervention to prevent interreligious conflict. Women’s experience of empowerment and participation in conflict mitigation,
    therefore, varies in terms of region/village dynamics, ethnicity, caste, class, exposure, age, interest, as
    well as religion. These intersecting factors either promote or hinder women’s access to active
    participation and uptake of their opinions in inter-religious committees. Thus, Muslim women from
    Matara town who were professionals and had access to mobility in public spaces were more
    empowered in terms of meaningful participation than their counterparts in other parts of Matara,
    Mannar, and Ampara. The Hindu respondents across all districts, while being discriminated by
    religious institutions, also revealed that the extent of women’s participation is dependent on their
    interest in the subject matter and prioritization of concerns. For example, the Hindu women in Mannar
    were more interested in pressing issues such as infrastructural development and employment for their
    children than in inter-religious conflict. Age and a culture of respect for seniority is also a factor which
    affects the extent of participation of youth, particularly girls, as they deferred to the opinions of older
    members of groups as a sign of respect. Finally, the economic status of a woman also determines her
    interest in participation whereby her engagement is dependent on what economic benefit she receives
    as a result.
    Irrespective of these factors that influence women’s participation, the researchers observed that
    meaningful and active participation of women in a collective occurred only when the group comprised
    of the same gender. Thus, the Muslim women’s religious group in Matara town as well as the WRDSs
    in Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara were working and engaging with stakeholders on issues such as
    capacity building, livelihoods training, infrastructure development, and loan schemes which are of
    importance to them. Therefore, it could be argued that what hampers their engagement in interreligious committees is the inherent patriarchal attitude that women do not have anything meaningful
    to contribute on issues of conflict mitigation, which was expressed by two male religious office bearers
    of different inter-religious committees in Mannar and Matara as well as the Muslim women members
    of a WRDS in Mannar (quoted previously in the report). The factors that impinge on women’s
    participation in inter-religious committees and conflict mitigation, therefore, are multiple, intersectional, and context specific. These create disparities not merely between men and women, but
    among women as well.
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    43
  2. Conclusion
    The discussion in sections 1-5 reveals that while inter-religious conflict manifests differently in the
    four districts, the underlying causes or enabling conditions for tension and conflict remain the same.
    Dynamics in all four districts show that at the heart of inter-religious conflict lie not only the statesanctioned agenda to promote Buddhist nationalism in the country and impunity granted to
    perpetrators of inter-religious violence, but also local/regional nationalisms based on religious identity
    among the Catholics in Mannar, the Hindus of the Northern Province and ethno-religious identity
    among the Muslims in Ampara. This is manifested most overtly in the contestation over sacred space
    and religious symbolism. This not only impacts the political milieu of each district, but also the psyches
    of communities as a whole whereby, for example, conflict between Catholics and Christians in Mannar
    is a result of the feeling that there is a rupture of the Catholic identity of the district. Similarly, but
    across all four districts, anti-Muslim sentiments (and negative sentiments towards Christians to a lesser
    degree) is due to the challenge posed by Muslims to the majoritarian imagination of the Buddhist
    community which stems from state-sanctioned Buddhist nationalism. This rupture to the imagination
    of ethno-religious purity or absoluteness of each district engenders a climate of fear of the small
    (insignificant) minorities (Appadurai 2006) present in the community. This fear is fanned further by
    economic and social inequalities aggravated by cultural and social factors such as caste and poverty
    among the different ethno-religious groups. Inter-religious tensions and conflict are, thus, precipitated
    in a psychological desire to approximate the imagination of ethno-religious purity or dominance by
    challenging the threatening ‘other’. This challenge is primarily accomplished through the appropriation
    of place belonging to the threatening ‘other’. Thus, in all four districts Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists
    seize secular, ethnicized spaces and infuse them with ethno-religious significance by acts of renaming,
    erecting religious statues, and constructing places of worship. On the other hand, the Muslim
    communities in Mannar, and Ampara assert their identity and dominance through the purchase of
    land and territorial expansion.
    The post-war climate of the country is another significant enabling condition for inter-religious
    conflict between Tamils and Buddhists in Matara, Jaffna and Mannar and Tamils and Muslims in
    Mannar and Ampara. Much of the (alleged) actions of the military such as the installment of statues
    of the Buddha in the Northern Province and the destruction, renaming and appropriation of Hindu
    places of worship in Jaffna was viewed by the community as stemming not from religious insecurity
    or rivalry, but on the basis of ethno-nationalism. Similarly in Deniyaya, the Tamil respondents defined
    their relationship with the Sinhalese community in relation to their memories of the ethnic violence
    in 1983. Muslim-Tamil relations are also mostly based on ethnic difference and fractured relationships
    due to the expulsion of Muslims from the north in 1990, more than religion. Thus, conflicts and
    violence which on the surface seem to be based on religious grounds, actually stem from inter-ethnic
    tensions, but can manifest or be perceived as religious conflict. However, this important role of ethnonationalism in inter-religious relations whereby ethnicity trumps over religion, is also determined by
    who the majority community in the district is. Thus, in Mannar, Buddhists empathize with Hindus in
    the face of a Tamil Catholic majority and in Ampara, Buddhists express animosity towards the Muslim
    majority by identifying with the Tamil community. Victimhood, thus brings different (and in other
    44
    circumstances conflicting) minority communities (ideologically) closer when they are confronted with
    a significant majority.
    While these overarching enabling conditions, produce different patterns of tensions and conflict in
    the four districts, a consistent theme emerging from all Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, and Non-RC
    respondents, irrespective of enabling conditions was suspicion, mistrust and/or animosity towards the
    Muslim community. Muslim-Tamil relationships in Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara are tainted by the
    repercussions of the expulsion of the Muslim community by the LTTE in 1990. Due to the expulsion
    Muslims, these districts have not been able to experience the organic increase in the Muslim
    population whereby, on their return, problems have arisen in relation to access to land and reclaiming
    of property. Political leaders who are pursuing their own agendas further aggravate these tensions.
    However, the interviews (particularly in Mannar and Ampara) also reveal a common discourse of fear
    and suspicion in the Buddhist psyche (and to a certain extent among the Tamils) against the purported
    increase in the Muslim population, their economic prosperity, the proliferation of mosques, unethical
    conversions, and territorial expansion.
    While the conflict between Tamils and Muslims seems to be based on tangible economic factors such
    as poverty (Ampara), economic dependence (Ampara), land (Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara) and access
    to resources (Mannar and Ampara), Buddhist-Muslim relations, on the other hand, are based more on
    ideological conflicts at the level of perceptions that manifest in tangible outcomes. Thus, in Matara
    and Ampara, the attitude of the Buddhist respondents towards the Muslim community was in relation
    to their ‘otherness’ as members of a religion not indigenous to Sri Lanka and as ‘threats’ to the Sinhala
    Buddhist identity. This manifests in the need for symbolic reinforcement of the Buddhist identity in
    Ampara in the form of claiming land as religious sites and the challenging of Muslim attire and
    businesses in Matara. It is also important to emphasize the ideological and moral conflict within the
    psyches of the Buddhist community which is demonstrated by their attempt (during interviews) at
    ‘political correctness’ in qualifying their racist observations with self-criticism. It could be argued that
    it is these moral insecurities, confusion, and lack of conviction regarding facts that make communities
    susceptible to exploitation by agents such as extremist Buddhist nationalist groups, extremist religious
    leaders, and politicians.
    Geographical positioning and demographic spread of different ethno-religious communities in a
    particular district are also important enabling conditions which impact ethno-religious relations. This
    is reflected particularly in the attitudes expressed by the Muslim respondents. While the
    actions/sentiments of the Sinhala and Tamil communities against Muslims in the four districts is based
    on ethno-religious mistrust and insecurity, the Muslims mostly adopt a victim stance as well as
    demonstrate a sense of entitlement, particularly in Mannar and Jaffna in terms of their status as a
    persecuted minority in the districts whose rights need to be reclaimed and safeguarded. Conversely,
    in Matara Town, the Muslim respondents demonstrated a conscious effort taken by the community
    to construct a positive image of Muslims as seen by their acts of philanthropy and attempts to address
    misconceptions held by the Sinhala community. However, this does not take place in Weligama where
    the Muslims are more densely concentrated unlike in Matara town.
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    45
    Catholic-Christian (Non-RC) as well as Hindu-Christian relations in all four districts and BuddhistChristian relations in Matara are linked to unethical conversions by evangelical churches. Intrareligious conflict (which was not a focus of the paper) was also a significant feature that emerged from
    the conversations in all four districts. Intra-Christian conflict was more pronounced in Mannar
    whereby it manifests in physical violence between both Catholics and evangelical churches and among
    evangelical churches as well. However, these conflicts are at the level of the village and family. Mannar
    is also an example of regional religious nationalism, whereby the district has been and is identified as
    Catholic. This is symbolically represented in the presence of the venerated shrine of Madhu, the
    administrative and political authority wielded by the Bishop of Mannar and Catholic priests in the
    area, and the historical significance of Mannar which is linked to Catholicism. The emergence of
    (reactionary) Hindu nationalism in the post-war context, characterized by the instalment of statues of
    the Lord Ganesh alongside Christian statues as a challenge to Christianization of public spaces is a
    significant development in the district that merits further study despite the fact that it is attributed to
    political motivations. Despite this manifestation in Mannar, Hindu-Christian relations in Ampara,
    Matara, and Jaffna appear more cordial and tolerant despite the issue of unethical conversions to
    Christianity.
    Intra-Buddhist conflict is also a significant factor which manifests not only among extremist and
    moderate Buddhists and Buddhist clergy, but also operates within the psyches of Buddhist individuals
    grappling with traditional Buddhist values and conflicting extremist influences. This is evident in
    Matara and Ampara where liberal Buddhist respondents expressed challenges faced due to resistance
    by extremist groups to their inter-religious activities and a sense of helplessness in countering
    extremism of the mind.
    Approaching the causes for inter-religious tensions and conflict (Mayer’s domains of conflict) from a
    macro regional perspective, in Mannar and Ampara, encroachment of and contestations over power,
    group identity and space by/among the different religious communities is enabled by the political,
    economic, and psychological (e.g., fears of Muslim expansion, myths or misunderstandings about
    religious others, and fear of losing one’s identity as a dominant group) conditions in both districts.
    Similarly, in Matara, grievances between the Buddhist and Muslim community are based on contested
    business spaces and group identity which are enabled by economic and psychological conditions. In
    Jaffna, contestations between Muslims and the Tamil political administration regarding space and
    place are enabled by political conditions. Intra-Hindu relations which are affected by discrimination
    based on caste (i.e. group identity) is enabled by the cultural, economic and political conditions in the
    district. Furthermore, Hindu-Buddhist relations in Jaffna are shaped by contestations of the
    personality, space, and identity of the Hindu community by the military, which is enabled again by
    political conditions.
    The conditions in each district also influence the conflict resolution mechanisms and strategies that
    are adopted. Mitigation strategies in each of the districts are therefore highly context sensitive. The
    interviews reveal that conflict resolution mechanisms vary in the districts and are dependent on the
    faith that communities have in law enforcement and legal mechanisms. It is, thus, interesting and
    significant that victims of inter-religious disputes in Mannar seek legal recourse rather than alternative
    46
    dispute resolution mechanisms as they lack faith in the impartiality of Catholic local government
    administrators. Conversely, in Ampara and Matara, there is a lack of faith in law enforcement officials
    and legal systems and their will to resolve inter-religious disputes because the disputes deal with
    challenging the Buddhist identity of the nation. Furthermore, dialogue around some of the issues
    related to contested religious and archaeological sites take place at the macro level with involvement
    of politicians and print and social media. This results in multiple understandings of the situation which
    aggravates conflict. More subtle strategies of promoting inter-religious coexistence were also adopted
    in Matara and Mannar through inter-religious committees and educational initiatives, but these
    approaches were deemed inadequate or limited in their capacity to address and resolve conflict. The
    interviews suggest that there is space for these committees and initiatives to be strengthened.
    The role of women in conflict mitigation and/or propagation of inter-religious conflict is again
    determined by the conditions in each district. The findings show that women hold strong opinions
    (positive and negative) about members of other religious communities, are aware of the nuances of
    inter-religious conflict in their localities, and sometimes take part actively in acts of intra-religious
    violence. There is a disparity, however, in their agency and acceptance into/participation in interreligious fora and peacebuilding activities. This disparity is not merely determined by their ethnoreligious background, but also by their caste, culture, standing in society as well as geographical
    positioning. Thus, while Muslim women in rural Mannar and Ampara were seen to be having less
    agency in terms of initiating discussion around local inter-religious issues and devising solutions,
    Muslim women in urban Matara Town demonstrated more participation in peacebuilding activities.
    Similarly, Hindu women in Jaffna and Ampara were seen to engage more in local women’s groups
    than their counterparts in Mannar. It is the Christian and Buddhist women who showed a consistent
    ability to engage in inter-religious affairs, though it is difficult to state to what extent from the data.
    However, irrespective of their levels of agency, it is important that women be engaged more in interreligious committees and peacebuilding activities as the findings show that they can be agents of both
    conflict and peace.
    To conclude, inter-religious conflict in the various forms described, stem from different levels of
    encroachment of space, identity and power of one ethno-religious community by another. This is
    facilitated by national and local enabling conditions which influence/shape the actions and inactions
    of local government structures which are governed by racism and majoritarianism, and are exploited
    by the private agendas of political manipulators. The findings of the study show that while negative
    perceptions of religious others exist, these manifest into violence primarily due to the impunity
    enjoyed by the ethno-religious majority in a district. Individual actions of government officials and
    religious leaders, business rivalries, social disparities in class and caste, poverty, land and abuse of
    social media are also central factors that facilitate the formation of misconceptions regarding religious
    others which leads to conflict. Thus, reform of state governance structures and lawful administration
    of justice would be the ideal in countering inter-religious conflict and violence. However, in the face
    of a lack of political will for institutional reform, strengthening skills, and inclusivity among local civil
    society organizations, religious leaders and inter-religious committees seems to be the alternative
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    47
    though inadequate solution to addressing the issue of inter-religious tensions and conflict in the four
    districts.
    48
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    50
    Appendix: The Research Sample
    Method Mannar Jaffna Ampara Matara
    Key
    Informant
    Interviews
  3. Representative
    of the Mannar
    Inter-religious
    forum (Hindu,
    man)
  4. Field officer of
    CBO
  5. Three
    representatives
    from three
    CSOs (one
    woman, two
    men)
  6. Previous
    president of
    Consortium of
    Hindu Temples
    (Hindu, man)
  7. Christian pastor
    (man)
  8. GN
    Administrator
    (Govt.)
    (Catholic man)
  9. Representative
    of the Mannar
    Inter-religious
    Forum (Catholic
    man)
  10. Two head
    monks of two
    Buddhist
    temples (men)
  11. One civil
    defence force
    officer stationed
    at a Buddhist
    temple
    (Buddhist man)
  12. Buddhist Monk
    (man)
  13. Moulavi (man)
  14. Freelance
    journalist and
    member of
    Catholic Society
    (man)
  15. Past president of
    WRDS (Hindu,
    woman)
  16. Politician (Hindu)
  17. Representative of
    the Ministry of
    National
    Integration and
    Reconciliation,
    Kilinochchi
    (Buddhist)
  18. Methodist
    priests (1 man
    and 1 woman)
  19. Catholic nun
  20. Lawyer
    (Muslim, man)
  21. Monk
  22. Buddhist monk
  23. Non-RC pastor
  24. Moulavi
    Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
    51
    Focus Group
    Discussions
  25. WRDS (3 Hindu
    women)
  26. WRDS (5
    Muslim Women)
  27. WRDS (8
    Catholic
    Women)
  28. Muslim lawyer
    and lay persons
    (3 men)
  29. WRDS (5 Hindu
    women)
  30. WRDS (4 Hindu
    Women)
  31. Women’s
    society (CBO,
    17 Hindu
    women)
  32. Retired
    government
    servants, exoffice bearers
    of Hindu
    societies,
    officers from
    GS office (9
    men and 1
    Catholic
    woman)
  33. WRDS and
    government
    sector (12
    Muslim
    women)
  34. Government
    servants, civil
    society
    members and
    religious
    leaders (16
    Muslim men)
  35. Buddhist men
    (8) and women
    (12) from a
    village
    development
    forum
    (Deegavapi)
  36. Members of an
    Islamic society
    ( 7 women
    from Matara)
  37. Buddhist
    women who
    are members of
    community
    forums and
    CBOs, teachers
    and
    businesswome
    n (8 women
    from Matara
    town)
  38. Members of an
    Islamic
    institution and
    the general
    public (3
    women, 5 men
    from
    Weligama)
  39. Buddhist men
    (11) and
    women (9)
    comprising
    undergraduates
    , businessmen,
    businesswome
    n, teachers,
    members of
    CBOs
    representatives
    of interreligious
    committee and
    one retired
    army officer,
    (Weligama)
  40. Hindu, Muslim
    and Christian
    men (7) and
    women (4)
    members of a
    DIRC in
    Deniyaya
  41. Buddhist men
    (8) and women
    (2) members of
    a DIRC in
    Deniyaya

2
INTER-RELIGIOUS CONFLICT IN FOUR
DISTRICTS OF SRI LANKA
The study draws from qualitative interviews and focus group discussions with women and
men from the districts of Mannar, Jaffna, Ampara, and Matara in Sri Lanka and unpacks
the intersecting domains of contestation among Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and
Buddhists including the agents and enabling conditions that fuel conflict. It adopts a
localised and context-specific lens to the analysis of inter-re

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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